Beijing, September 2016
As a tourist, the name fits. The Great Wall of China is a great place to visit. As a worker, maybe not so much, we witnessed how they are renovating parts of the wall and it’s been done in exactly the same way they built the wall centuries ago: through hard manual labor.
With the help of Dan (we met him in Beijing through BeWelcome) we found our way to a remote little village called Xi Zha Zi. It was already getting late, so we decided to get some food in what seemed to be the only restaurant in town and pitched our tent on a small hill on the edge of town. The next morning we were ready for our first hike: to Nine Eyes Tower. The experienced survival cracks that we are, we of course got hopelessly lost on the way and never made it to the tower. However, we did make it through some thick bushes on a long and steep climb all the way up to the wall, to a point that was marked on the map in our guidebook: “impossible detour”. Not the best start, but the view from the wall was absolutely stunning. What’s more, this section of the wall was completely untouched and although partly in ruins, looked still exactly the way it did when it was built. Our way to Nine Eyes Tower was blocked by a 50 meter vertical drop, so we decided to take our chances in the opposite direction towards “Beijing Knot” where a different part of the wall would intersect. It was a wonderful experience to walk across this ancient structure, fighting our way through what felt like a jungle of trees and thick thorny bushes that over the years had grown out of the bricks and stones, while having the most breathtaking views of the wall meandering over the ridge of the mountains, cutting off one valley from the next.
We had read that Beijing Knot was an easy cross, but as we were climbing steeper and steeper on the crumbling remains of what once were stairs, we started to get more and more nervous. Linda (the more sensible of us two) was already arguing to turn around, while Jeroen (the not so sensible one) stubbornly pushed forward. After we cleared a few rather dangerous stretches of very steep climbing, we reached a near vertical climb on what was the last 20 meter to the top of Beijing Knot. It felt ridiculous to give up after having come so far, but nowhere near as ridiculous as trying to go up this section without any climbing gear. With sweaty palms, racing heart beats and the wind gusting around our heads, we did the only sensible thing: to climb our way all the way back down.
This time we found an actual path leading back to the village, where we hungrily sat down in the only restaurant in town and enjoyed a well deserved beer. Although it was difficult to ease our nerves, because a little ~4 year old boy with a Micky Mouse backpack was racing around the room with his toy car and the devil in his eyes, screaming and shouting like a pig in distress while frantically waving his toy-gun, filling us up with imaginary lead. When he finally calmed down a bit and stopped trying to kill us, he put his car to a screeching halt in front of Linda’s feet, opened his Mickey Mouse backpack and took out two more guns, one for Linda and another one for himself. It actually was a toy helicopter, but he seemed to be able to shoot with it just fine. When he couldn’t persuade Linda to follow him to (what we later learned was) his auntie, he transformed into his demon-self again, started wrestling Linda and turning over backwards, trying to kill her off with his pistol.
After these two near-death experiences, we decided to take it somewhat easier the next day. We had only packed for 2 days, but we were so flashed by the beauty of the wall and the surrounding area that we decided to stay a bit longer. So we took our tent and went hiking with all our equipment, back up the same path towards Nine Eyes Tower. We were already walking in yet another wrong direction, when we met a Chinese tourist with a personal guide. We non-verbally tried to ask for the way to “nine fingers and hand gestures to imitate the silhouette of a tower”, to which she showed us a picture on her phone of what we were trying to mimic, success! It turned out they were heading the same way, so this time around we actually made it all the way up to the tower. It was not as awe-inspiring as the day before, because the tower and top part of the wall are completely renovated. So after a quick look we hopped over the wall on the other side to go down a valley further. After a long descend we walked into a small village where we found elderly men breaking open the concrete road with sledge hammers and pick axes in the scorching sun to try and plant some trees. Probably to please the tourists, as the village seemed to be more of a touristic destination for visitors of the wall. We found a nice little guesthouse where we managed to order some vegetarian food by pointing at various vegetables in their kitchen and as soon as it got dark, we pitched our tent just outside of town.
The next morning we climbed our way up to the wall again and in good tradition, we got hopelessly lost once more, so we asked some locals working on one of the lower level terraces for directions. By this time we had learnt a few things about the way the Chinese communicate. First, they’ll start talking to you in Chinese and when you shake “no” and reply with “only English”, they’ll continue to talk in Chinese, sometimes a bit louder, magically expecting you to suddenly understand. Once they realize you really don’t understand Chinese, this usually takes a while, they’ll proceed to write Chinese characters on their hand or in the sand. So we thought we were smart by pointing at the wall up above and giving them two options: left or right. Typically, when they know the answer to your question, you’ll get a swift reply. When they don’t, they’ll never admit it. They’ll look at you stunned, frightened and helpless all at the same time and will hesitantly give you a random answer. If applicable, they’ll simply say yes. So when one of them looked at us with big eyes and hesitantly pointed to the right, we knew we were in trouble. By now one of the other guys started pointing to the right as well, and without much of a better plan, we simply started walking in that direction. It didn’t take long for us to reach thick bushes on steep climbs again, with no clear path in sight. We decided to keep on ploughing through and after wrestling our way up for a good hour, we made it to a path up!
Breathing heavily, with sweat dripping from our foreheads and our arms scratched from the branches, we laughingly looked in disbelief at a family strolling by comfortably, with a few kids hopping and skipping their way past us. We missed the easy stairs up, but at least we were back on track again!
A Brit and his girlfriend with a personal guide on their way down told us about a good spot to camp on the wall, so that’s where we headed next. After about two hours of climbing and trekking through bushes across the half-intact wall we reached the camping spot, a largish half-broken tower-structure near the end of a stretch of wall going down into a valley. In our guide-book we read that there would be a hotel down the valley where we might be able to get food and water. So we left our backpacks in the tower and after a good hour of walking down we were happy to see that there was indeed a restaurant. We devoured an incredible noodle soup and with a lunch package for the next day, a lot of water and a couple of beers, we hastily made our way up again, as big clouds were starting to form above our heads. We walked up quicker than we walked down and made it back to the tower before the rain started, although we were now dripping with sweat. With no other tourists in sight, it made for a perfect occasion to strip down and wash right on top of the watch tower. Probably one of the most memorable showers we’ve ever had, which was followed by an incredible show of thunderbolts lighting up the pitch black sky. Luckily we had no problems staying dry inside the tower.
We continued our journey the next day, back towards Xi Zha Zi over Beijing Knot. On Beijing Knot we looked down at the dazzlingly steep section we decided not to climb the first day, which reassured us once more we had made the right decision. As we continued our way down we hit another impossible climb, but there seemed to be a way around it, by going off the wall. We ended up sliding down and climbing up steep slopes, while performing jungle moves jumping from one tree to another, with some intense bouldering up a steep rocky cliff. Needless to say, Linda wasn’t liking it. Luckiky Jeroen’s stubbornness to push through paid off this time and we made it back up to the wall from where we had an easy descend back into the Xi Zha Zi valley.
Here we met Jerry, an older business man from the USA and a Chinese girl, who was his girlfriend or wife, depending on who you’d ask. Jerry’s favorite topic was discussing the good value of international 5 star hotels, to which we had a hard time relating, sitting there in the same not so fresh outfit we had been wearing for the past 5 days. We had a nice evening together though and he and his wife/girlfriend gave us some helpful advice on how to find our way down to Mutianyu.
As a first, we found our way without getting lost and enjoyed the comfort of an easier stretch of wall. The further we went to Mutianyu, the more tourists we encountered, until we reached a sign that read: “Dangerous, do not proceed further”. By crossing the sign we made it to Mutianyu, a section of the wall that is completely renovated and flooded with tourists. We felt like cave men stepping into the civilized world in our very dirty clothes. We had big eyes staring at us and heard people whisper: “did they just come from the other side?”. Others would point at a branch Jeroen was using as a walking stick, while whispering “look at how big his stick is”. Our plan was to go down into “Intelligence Valley” in the Shentangyu national park for some swimming and relaxing. But we guess we were a little star struck from all the sudden attention, because as we tried to escape the selfies with the Chinese tourists, we promptly ran our way down the wrong side of the mountain.
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t realise our mistake until we got all the way down. After slapping our foreheads for a while, we decided to accept our losses and walk all the way back up the long trail to the top, only to be stopped by the local park patrol who wanted to see our entry tickets for the wall. It felt weird to have to pay money to go back up to the tourists on the renovated piece of wall, just to be able to walk down the other side. So we didn’t. But as we walked further down, the whole experience felt too anti-climaxing. So we hopped into a taxi who drove us around the mountain to Shentangyu. By now, it was already getting dark and we weren’t allowed into the national park. So without much of a better plan we pitched our tent on the parking lot, where we woke up the next morning to one of the park rangers practicing some Tai Chi. The park was a weird mix between nature and holiday resort, but we found what we were looking for: a quiet spot along the river. So we stripped down and jumped in, a liberating feeling after a week of hiking in the hot sun. We took the opportunity to wash our clothes and as we lay down in the sun with our clothes hanging out to dry in the trees, we felt like we could look back on a Great Wall experience.